Friday, October 19, 2007

Napa Valley “Vino de Casa,” Ceja Vineyards 2002

Knowing I’d be in the mood for a simple meal at the end of a long, slow day at work on Tuesday, I took some ground lamb out of the freezer to thaw in time for dinner. In between other foci throughout the day, I gave some thought to what I’d pull from the cellar to accompany the lamb burgers I planned to make. I kept returning to two wines: one a Napa Valley red blend from Ceja Vineyards, the other a Saint-Joseph Rouge from Yves Cuilleron. During the course of the day, I stumbled upon a recent posting on Tom Wark’s Fermentation.

Tom’s piece, "Pointing Us Where We Should Be Looking,” discusses the political significance and importance of migrant, often illegal, laborers in the California wine industry. In the context of the post, Tom happened to mention Amelia Ceja, owner of Ceja Vineyards, who, unbeknownst to me until that point, was the first Mexican-American woman to head a US-based winery. This chance discovery and random chain of occurrences made clear my final choice. It would be the 2002 “Vino de Casa” from Ceja.

Napa Valley “Vino de Casa,” Ceja Vineyards 2002
I don’t often write about new world wines. Frankly, that’s because even though I cut my teeth on them I no longer drink them with much frequency. Too many of the wines, famous or not, have been pushed to levels of ripeness, alcohol and “polish” that have made them unfriendly to food and uninteresting to the delicate sensibilities of this old man’s jaded palate. Fully aware that this is a huge generalization, I try to keep a slightly open mind and, from time to time, will pick up a bottle or three to explore what’s out there and to stay at least a little in touch with a huge part of today’s wine industry.

Frankly number two: I never would have selected this wine on my own. A California blend of Pinot Noir, Merlot and Syrah (foul ball, strike one) from a producer unknown to me (caught me looking, strike two) would generally have about as much appeal as the thought of getting my finger caught in a mouse trap. Blend Pinot Noir with Gamay in Cheverny or in a Bourgogne Passetoutgrains and you might have a good chance at a characterful everyday quaff. Blend it with César in Irancy, one of the more esoteric corners of Burgundy, and things can get interesting. But blend Pinot Noir with Merlot and Syrah? It seems sure to have its voice drowned out by its louder partners.

So how did this bottle end up chilling in my little cellar for the last two years? I put myself in the hands of a staff member at a good wine shop, Teller Wines, during a week at the Delaware shore a couple of summers ago. And, after talking with the salesperson for a while, I asked him specifically to recommend a couple of things that he liked that were outside my usual stomping grounds. It’s a good way to get to try new things, especially if you have a sense that the person doing the recommending actually cares about wine. I ended up with just two bottles: a New Zealand Gewurztraminer and the 2002 “Vino de Casa” from Ceja.

When I finally uncorked the Ceja this past Tuesday, it turned out to be surprisingly good. Its color was a bright ruby/cherry red. It was not opaque; rather, I could actually see my hand, albeit slightly distorted, through the wine in my glass. And it smelled and tasted like, well, Pinot Noir, California style, with lots of forward black cherry and spice on the nose along with clean fruit and uplifting acidity on the palate. The wine didn’t have a particularly strong sense of place beyond that “Californianess” – I could have placed it in Santa Barbara or the Russian River just as easily as in the Napa side of Carneros – but it did taste like pretty honest wine. It wasn’t terribly over-adjusted. Most happily of all, it wasn’t high alcohol nor was it hot on the finish. And it was actually pretty food friendly. I could have asked for a more perfect match for the lamb burgers – the Ceja was almost devoid of tannins and a little on the jammy, straightforward side. But it definitely didn’t suck. And sometimes that’s actually pretty high praise.

$23. Produced and bottled by Ceja Vineyards. Under 14% alcohol (exact content unlisted). Natural cork closure.


Anonymous said...

Estimado David,

I enjoyed your write-up on our 2002 Ceja Vino de Casa Tinto -- a red blend that is ideal with breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's smooth, seamless and yummy! You have an open invitation to visit Ceja Vineyards in our beloved Carneros in the Napa Valley anytime! I'm a vintner and a chef, and I agree with you about many California wines being "big boys with steroids high alcoholic fruit bombs." Our excellent Ceja wines are subtle and gently layered and they reflect our deep respect and understanding of farming -- collectively, my partners and I have over 100 years of winegrowing experience, and our beautifully balanced wines are made in the vineyards -- not in the cellar! Please visit our website Muchas gracias.

Amelia Moran Ceja
Ceja Vineyards

David McDuff said...

You're welcome, Amelia. I did enjoy your wine -- and am glad you enjoyed my notes. I'll try to take you up on your invitation the next time I'm in the Carneros area.


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